Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
Toward the end of his life, John Updike was fond of musing about how little the world would note his passing. He suspected that “a shrug and tearless eyes / will greet my overdue demise; / The wide response will be, I know, / ‘I thought he died a while ago.’” The John Updike Society, which held its first conference last month, is dedicated to proving the author wrong. The event, held near Updike’s hometown of Shillington, Pennsylvania, started the society’s work of sustaining and growing a literary reputation. The weekend included academic readings, panels of friends and family, and tours of the author’s two boyhood homes and the environs of Shillington and Reading where much of his fiction was set. The mission of the Society -- along with creating opportunities to enjoy the fellowship of Updike devotees – is “awakening and sustaining reader interest in the literature and life of John Updike.” No detail was too small for discussion. Attendees wanted to know if Updike did the dishes at home, whether he liked Sinatra, if he was handy around the house. On bus tours, attendees pondered the department store where his mother worked, the restaurant where he’d lunched as teenager, the old movie theater featured in his non-fiction. Much of the attendees’ interest, understandably, focused on discovering if their idol was indeed the man they knew. During the testimony of family and friends, Updike held up pretty well. He was described by classmates as bookish, popular and enduringly responsive; by his children as a present if occasionally distracted father; and by his first wife Mary Weatherall as an author who valued his spouse’s opinion. There were a couple of surprises – he might not have written as many words each day as he claimed and according to his children, he inexplicably struggled to connect with his father, Wesley, a man Updike’s children seemed to adore. Then of course there were the conference papers, all intended to continue the critical discussion that will be so important to sustaining the Updike reputation long-term. “Can an author survive without authorial champions?” Society President James Plath asked when I interviewed him after the conference. “I don’t think so.” The evidence supports his claim. In one of his last interviews, in October 2008, Updike cited the curious case of Emily Dickinson, who was not well known upon her death and who required the help of critics decades down the road to lift her to her current place in the canon. “There is a whole raft of poets contemporary with Emily Dickinson,” Updike said. “None of them would have imagined that she would have become one of the defining names of American letters.” The most famous of the exhumed luminaries -- the example often cited to convey the cruelties of literary reputation -- is Herman Melville, who died at age 72 in relative anonymity after several literary disappointments and 19 years working in a customs house. His obituary in 1891 in the New York Times looked, in its entirety, like this: Herman Melville died yesterday at his residence, 104 East 26th Street, this city, or heart disease, aged seventy-two. He was the writer of Typee, Omoo, Mobie Dick, and other sea-faring tales, written in earlier years. He leaves a wife and two daughters, Mrs. M. B. Thomas and Miss Melville. Bummer. Melville apparently was the deceased writer Updike worried he would become -- dead before he‘d died. It took 30 years for what is now called the Melville Revival to commence and for Melville to ascend to his rightful place in the American canon. This was accomplished by the only people capable of doing it -- scholars, historians, writers, publishers. In Melville’s case, it was biographers Raymond Weaver and Carl Van Doren and author and critic D.H. Lawrence. Without them, Melville’s historical significance might have diminished beyond even the four lines devoted to him in the Times obituary. Updike seemed to understand as much. In that late 2008 interview, he said literary reputations are “strange things,” left often to the whims and tastes of future generations. He noted that 19th century readers were often concerned with order, meter, and plots in which good triumphs over evil – qualities less important to today’s modern and postmodern readers. He lauded Norman Mailer for not pushing too hard in his lifetime on behalf of his literary reputation, since it was an issue largely beyond his control. Society President Plath, of course, likes Updike’s odds. He suspects future scholars will be wondrous of Updike’s capacity with metaphor, happy to find his descriptions of sex, thrilled at the number of other texts that Updike works off of in his oeuvre -- including three novels written in homage to Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. “I think he’s in pretty good shape,” Plath says. Updike’s sometimes editor at the New Yorker, Charles McGrath, also liked Updike’s odds of enduring. During that late interview with Updike, he said, “If those of us in this room had to bet who would last, you’d put your money on Bellow, Updike, and Roth.” And yet Updike knew even he could be forgotten. There was the fear, very real, Updike thought, that reading of any kind might wither away, as well as the possibility that future generations will not be concerned with the perspective of a white, middle-class male from the Mid-Atlantic region who wrote primarily in a realistic mode. He said: These piles of books that all of us writer are piling up [could] become just as burdensome as Latin writing in the Renaissance. There was a lot of that, and who reads it now except a few scholars? So, yes, it’s not something you should stay awake at night about, you should, my theory is, do your best, try to be honest, in your work, and amusing…. Beyond that it is out of your control And, on a weekend devoted to John Updike, there were signs of the struggle to endure any author faces. His children, though admiring and laudatory of their father’s work, admitted to not always getting through it – daughter Miranda has tried to read Couples a few times. Daughter Elizabeth Cobblah said her father had decades ago suggested she read his African novel, The Coup, in anticipation of her marrying a man from Ghana. She hasn’t yet gotten around to it, but she plans to. Trouble also lurked in the center of the Updike universe, the Shillington house where he grew up, and which he lovingly described in short stories, novels, and his memoirs, Self-Consciousness. The house is now occupied by the advertising agency Niemczyk/Hoffman, whose employees graciously allowed the Society members to tour their offices. In one room, formerly the guest bedroom where Updike watched his mother write fiction, the agency’s principal, Tracy Hoffman, was asked by a Society member if he read Updike. “I’ve tried, but the descriptions …” Hoffman said, his voice trailing off, suggesting the descriptions were … um … too much. “Have you tried Pigeon Feathers?” the Society member asked. “I did,” Hoffman said, wincing. In his memoirs, Updike said, that one of his great lifetime joys was watching the world going on without him, “ the awareness of things going by, impinging on my consciousness, and then, all beyond my control, sliding away toward their own destination and destiny.” In that respect, too, Updike might have been gratified by this first weekend held in his honor – the world, as he suspected, will continue to roll on happily both with and without him.
The man wanted the box I was carrying. I’d almost made it to the front door of a Goodwill in Brooklyn, and I had no idea how he’d guessed the box was full of books. There were no labels and the top flaps were closed. I was staggering a bit under its weight, but I could have been donating kitchen supplies, clothes, or old toys. Anything! He came toward me, a man probably in his 30s, ragged, living on the edge. His face opened into a smile and he closed the distance between us fast, holding out his arms. “Books?” he asked. “Are those books?” “Yes,” I said. Then I realized I was in the wrong place. A sign on the door of the Goodwill said we needed to use another entrance around the corner. “Can I have them?” he asked. “I love books. I love reading.” I looked at my husband. He was holding two boxes of books and staggering more than I. I looked at my children, who were looking up at me, waiting. I am uncomfortable shedding books. The three boxes my husband and I were holding, plus three more in the trunk of the car, were the result of a careful purge executed after living abroad for a year. We’d been home only a few weeks and it was clear our bookcases were too crowded to hold all the books we’d bought in Germany. In the days I’d spent weeding the shelves, I’d very nearly given up my college edition of Ulysses before confessing on Twitter and being saved by a bookseller friend who suspected I was making a mistake while still addled by jetlag. But I did a few unthinkable things, such as keeping only my favorite McEwan novels. I told myself only collectors keep complete sets and I am fundamentally not a collector, especially in a Manhattan apartment. “You like to read?” I asked weakly, stalling. “Yeah!” he said. His enthusiasm seemed genuine, but given his general condition, I couldn’t convince myself he wasn’t going to go around the corner and sell the books on the sidewalk. Did I want the sale of the books to benefit Goodwill more than him? That didn’t seem right. But I was committed to the idea that the books would sit, dry and cared for, until someone came along and chose them. My husband’s grandmother, an amazing reader, bought all her books at the Goodwill in Norfolk, Va., I guess I was picturing someone like her. “Mom?” my nine-year-old daughter said. She looked worried and a bit confused. She loves books, too, and this is what she was taking in: My reluctance to give a box of books to someone who had just told us he loved to read. I didn’t know what to do. “You really want them?” I said. “You want to read them?” “Yes!” I gave him the box and smiled at my daughter, but I was aware of making a choice that had more to do with how I wanted to teach her to treat people than how I actually wanted to treat the books I was holding. And then, unable to shake the feeling that I was abandoning some part of myself to an uncertain fate, I followed him and my daughter followed me. My husband and son headed to the correct Goodwill entrance; the man with my books crossed the street, put the box down, and opened it. He sorted through the books, picked up a few for closer inspection, and ultimately put several in a bag he was wearing over his shoulder. I wanted to know which books he was taking, books I’d lived with for nearly 20 years, but his back was to me and I couldn’t see. “What’s he doing?” my daughter asked. We were standing behind a parked car across the street. “Well, I think he’s picking out the ones he wants,” I said. “He’s not taking them all?” she asked. “Maybe not. The box is heavy.” The man closed the box, picked it up, and started walking again. Half-a-block along, and now directly across the street from the Goodwill entrance my husband had gone to, he appeared to run into a friend who was unloading a truck. They talked for a minute, then he put the box down and his friend went through the books, also taking a few for himself. The exchange seemed spontaneous and magnanimous. I hugged my daughter. My husband passed by with the last two boxes. “How’s it going?” he asked. “He’s sharing some of the books with a friend!” I announced. While my husband was in the Goodwill, the man crossed the street, put the box on the sidewalk in front of the correct entrance, and walked away. In the car on the way home, my husband said that the workers inside the Goodwill had been truly grumpy about receiving five boxes of books. He’d found it disheartening, and on top of it all, we’d gotten a parking ticket, the fact that we were making a donation not impressive enough to save us. I turned around and looked at my tired children. “Isn’t it so lucky we bumped into a reader on the street?” “Do you really think he was?” my daughter asked. “I do,” I said. And I do. Image Credit: Flickr/Beaufort's TheDigitel
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My Shakespeare intake is up sharply this season. So far, I've attended about one performance every six weeks. Two comedies (a .333 average), three tragedies (.500), and even one romance (.167). My mother, a high school English teacher, must be pleased with the numbers I've been putting up. And I'm prepared to testify before any grand jury that will have me that the only performance-enhancing drugs I've touched have been brewed from the choicest hops and barley.Here in New York, it's possible to indulge in Bardolatry whenever you want. At least two Shakespeare productions are running on any given night. And of course, the plays are meant to be seen, rather than read. Or so say the experts. This week's Shakespeare-in-the-Park performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream left me wondering, though... are they right?Having read AMND thrice and having seen four previous stage productions, I was surprised at how many great speeches I'd managed to forget. "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact," Duke Theseus theorizes. "Be as thou wast wont to be," Oberon tells a sleeping Titania, on the verge of reconciliation. "See as thou wast wont to see." On a more Global level, though, the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production was a mess - part Broadway razzle-dazzle, part Three Stooges routine, part Ibsen. Rather than mining the subterranean connections between the play's disparate tones and textures, director Daniel Sullivan seemed hellbent on obliterating them.Yes, it was free, on a beautiful night in the Park, and yes, there is fun to be had picking holes in any performance. But the contrast between this Dream and Michael Grief's Romeo and Juliet (this summer's other Shakespeare-in-the-Park offering) suggested a crucial lesson for any director of Shakespeare: one must surrender to the imperatives of the material, rather than trying to bend it to one's will. Such a surrender does not slough off the burden of interpretation; indeed, it requires it. But Grief's decisions about the nature of love and lust, the relative costs of innocence and experience, and the place of the individual in society, flowed from Shakespearean preoccupations; whereas the current production lacks a point-of-view on love, on imagination, or on anything at all. Sullivan's rope tricks and glowsticks threaten not just to jazz up but to gloss over A Midsummer Night's Dream.Grappling with the big questions Shakespeare wrestled into blank verse can yield a refreshlingly classicist take on a play, like Grief's, or something as riotously new as the Wooster Group Hamlet. In the case of slightly weaker source material, such as The Taming of the Shrew, strong direction may produce something in between, like Propeller's excellent staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music... while commenting on our own times.When a director aims to displace the Bard's magic with its own, however, I'd just as soon save my money, drag out my brokeback Riverside Shakespeare, and stage a play in the round of my own mind. Which doesn't mean I'd ever pass up tickets to any live performance... provided someone else is buying.
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